Book review

Zia Haider Rahman writes a feast of a debut novel

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As I turned the pages of Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know,” I could not suppress the odd, recurring thought of a fabulous seafood cacciatore I had eaten recently: steaming haddock, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and bits of lobster tail over delicate al dente pasta with garlic, onion, carrots, a hint of cloves, crushed tomatoes, red wine sauce and a bit of cayenne pepper. 

By Zia Haider Rahman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27)

Mr. Rahman’s rich and complex debut novel is like that great meal, I decided, except his recipe also includes grated ginger root and cardamom chicken thrown in, a New York strip steak, stilton dumplings with horseradish sauce, lemon juice lamb kebab, mango relish, and a dollop each of coriander chutney and baba ghanouj on the side. And two glasses of champagne, please. Somehow, it all works. In fact, “In the Light of What We Know” may be the best meal you eat this year.

Metaphor is everywhere in this sweeping and brilliant tale of love, mathematics, religion, family, banking, betrayal, class, history, philosophy, race, technology, politics, friendship, post-9/11 war, marriage, and, yes, food.

That Mr. Rahman can effectively balance it all and leave the reader wanting a few more bites is remarkable in just 500 pages. Longer would not have been disappointing.

A friendship formed at Oxford between a poor Bangladeshi immigrant, Zafar, and a wealthy U.S. citizen with Pakistani roots, the nameless narrator of Mr. Rahman’s story, is the hub around which the novel revolves.

Years after university, an unkempt Zafar appears at the narrator’s door and stays to tell the improbable story of his life. He recounts details of his disadvantaged upbringing in a rat-infested London flat. He tells of those unfortunate souls who did not survive the perilous train journey he took as a child to visit his birth mother in Bangladesh, a country whose unspeakably violent beginnings had occurred only a few years earlier.

Between meals with an occasional glass of champagne and pointed conversations with the narrator about the ethics of mortgage-backed securities and the uncertainty of mathematical proofs, Zafar provides the history of his ill-fated love for Emily and their courtship in London, New York and Kabul.

We learn of Zafar’s hidden rage, violence mirrored in his own conception and fueled by a lifetime of injuries of class and race. The two friends trade assessments of F. Scott Fitzgerald and V.S. Naipaul. The narrator urges Zafar to write, but Zafar says he could only write about life’s dissatisfactions or “how to lose one’s faith. I could write about that.” Finally, the narrator and Zafar navigate disturbing personal confession and betrayal.

As someone who has had the good fortune of personal familiarity with several of the countries, cultures and institutions that Mr. Rahman describes, I felt again and again that his insights — whether related to Pakistan-India enmity, Ivy League attitude or non-governmental organizations’ idealism — were right on target, that his characters’ experiences and emotions were plausible and compelling, and that his grasp of the widely varied subjects in the novel was breathtaking.

If anything, the author is at times a bit too clever, leaving the reader feeling lost as he dances from one perspective to another. A few of his characters border on being caricatures, but how interesting it is that these are the white-skinned American and British heirs of colonialists.

Is it possible that some of us Americans, for example, are indeed as boorish as Mr. Rahman’s invented Crane, who swaggers through Kabul on a mission that has nothing to do with the real welfare of Afghanistan?

Among many daring passages is an account of Zafar’s mysterious dinner in Islamabad with a handful of hard-drinking Pakistani military and intelligence officials. If I had not experienced precisely this kind of surprising gathering myself in that city, I would have accused Mr. Rahman of needless and lurid exaggeration. This meant that the outlandish behaviors described in post-invasion Kabul, a city I do not know firsthand, were all the more gripping and believable.

One of Mr. Rahman’s characters says a story is “the most dangerous thing in the world” and posits that we all live in extended metaphors, swirling masses of stories. It is difficult to separate illusion from reality; what is real anyway?

Bangladesh-born Mr. Rahman, experienced as an investment banker and international human rights lawyer, would suggest we live in imagined worlds. His fictional characters inhabit the page alongside Mary Robinson, the then-U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan.

Reading Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know,” I have been prodded to think carefully about what I believe to be true, the limits of science and the power of falling in love. I have enjoyed a feast of a story. Now full to the point of having eaten too much, I am nonetheless savoring the memory of even the last leaf.

Paul Overby, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and corporate executive, is a board member of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and the American Middle East Institute. He also serves as the honorary consul of Germany in Pittsburgh (

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